A Kids Game Helps Finley Shake Funk

Position coach Jerry Fontenot has helped Jermichael Finley get back on track after a disappointing first nine games to the season. With Fontenot making things more fun, Finley has become a go-to weapon and regained the trust of Aaron Rodgers.

The dropped passes. The inconsistency. The criticism.

It all was wearing on Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.

Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot took notice.

"My biggest thing is I wanted to make football fun and I felt like maybe he wasn't having as much fun as he could have been," Fontenot said on Thursday. "So, I've been taking that approach and making it more of a game with him. He wants to catch the ball and he wants to get as many reps as he can."

So, rather than simply catching passes during position drills, Fontenot carves out some time for a game hot potato with Finley and the other tight ends. The game has a purpose, with quick reactions simulating adjusting to a tipped ball or an obstructed view of the pass, but it has the larger purpose of making practice fun by making it a game.

Whatever Fontenot is doing, it's working.

In the midst of a second consecutive season of inconsistency and too many dropped passes, Finley has come on strong for the stretch run.

After a five-game period in which Finley caught 10 passes for 84 yards and no touchdowns, he has caught 24 passes for 324 yards and one touchdown over the last six. With 53 receptions, Finley needs three catches on Sunday at Minnesota to set a career high and tie Paul Coffman's 33-year-old franchise record for the position.

"I would say it was a little difficult — not necessarily not fun but difficult, because of the fact that I know I can play," Finley said. "Coach Fontenot, he's a players coach and he's going to look out for his players and make sure everything's going great."

It's not just the catches but the impact of those catches.

Finley's season high for receiving yards in the first nine games was 60. In the last six games, he's reached 60 yards four times. He had one catch longer than 20 yards in the first nine games. He's had one such explosive gain in five of the last six games, including a 40-yard catch-and-run at Detroit to set up the winning touchdown.

"Whenever Jermichael gets his hands on the ball (lately), he's been productive," Fontenot said. "Producing gives more opportunities. I think that he's getting to a place where he's getting into a rhythm and I think he feels much better and much more in sync with what's going on. The bottom line is he's making plays. It's not catching the ball and going down, but he's getting yards after the catch, yards after contact, which is something that I chart pretty diligently. He's done a very good job there."

Finley's production has garnered more opportunities and better chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. At Rodgers' direction, they've been meeting on Saturdays since before the Oct. 14 game at Houston. Finley caught two passes for 12 yards in that game. Not impressive on the surface, but he impressed everyone by even playing after being listed as questionable with a shoulder injury that sidelined him the week before against Indianapolis.

"Jermichael played through a significant shoulder injury early in the season," coach Mike McCarthy said. "For him to be active for that Houston game was something I don't think any of us expected. I think he's healthy, he's in a good rhythm. Now he's getting more opportunities. He's out there playing up and above 40 snaps a game. He's in a good grove right now."

That groove with Rodgers was evident two weeks ago against Chicago, when Finley was covered underneath by Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs and over the top by safety Major Wright. Rodgers threw it anyway – something he probably wouldn't have done earlier in the season. Finley made the catch, bounced off Wright and rumbled for another dozen yards for a 31-yard gain. Rodgers also went to Finley on fourth-and-2 in that game. On Dec. 2 against Minnesota, Rodgers hit Finley for three third-down conversions, and with the Packers trying to score before halftime last week against Tennessee, Finley caught passes on three consecutive plays.

"I would say getting ‘12' back comfortable with me and the confidence on his side with me to actually catch the ball, and knowing that when I do catch it that I'm going to make a play," Finley said. "He's been seeing the work I put in. I've been putting the work in. Even when I wasn't performing, I was putting tons of work in but now he sees the detailing and my work ethic. You know where he's going to put the ball. He's so good and he's at the point now in his career where he can put the ball where he wants it."

During Finley's six-game hot stretch, he's caught 24-of-31 targeted passes (with two drops) and posted 150 yards after the catch, according to ProFootballFocus.com. In the first nine games, he caught 29-of-45 passes (with seven drops) with 99 yards after the catch. That equates to 6.25 YAC per catch compared to 3.41.

"Jermichael has been playing really well," Rodgers told ESPN Milwaukee's Jason Wilde on his weekly radio show on Thursday. "I can't say enough how proud I am of him and the way that he's carried himself and been making plays. The ball's been in his area and he's been coming down and breaking tackles and playing the way that he knows how to play. He's playing with a lot of confidence."

The timing, of course, couldn't be better. The Packers are rampaging into the playoffs with nine wins in 10 games and Finley's future in Green Bay could be at stake with a $3 million roster bonus due in March and a $4.45 million base salary for the final season of his two-year deal.

"Coming to the playoffs, you want to start on fire," Finley said. "I'm feeling great. It's crazy how much confidence I have right now catching the ball and getting up the field."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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